PANA`EWA: Cultural Description Of Indigenous Hawaiian Life



The primary and relevant cultural evidences of the indigenous Hawaiian’s cultural philosophy, values, morals and ethics are the chants. It is within these sources that what is culturally important in the indigenous Hawaiian culture can be gleaned by people of today.


The chant Kualoloa Kea`au i ka Nähelehele recites the restructuring of the Pana`ewa forest area and lower Puna to `Apua Point by a volcanic eruptive phase.  In the myth and saga of Pele and Hi`iaka, this mele or chant emerges from the journey taken by Hi`iaka and her battle with the mo`o deity of the forest of Pana`ewa.  It is noteworthy that of all of the forested areas on Hawai`i Island this forest that stretches from ma kai to ma uka is the only forest that was given a specific name of Pana`ewa.

There are several cultural points of interest from this short mele which begins this Cultural Impact Assessment.  These cultural facets are listed below:

 1.          Land and the uncontrolled expansion of land.

2.       The Wahine or Deity responsible for the extension of land.

3.       Hi`iaka, the deity of new growth and medicine

4.       Pana`ewa the forest

5.       Pana`ewa , the deity of the forest

6.      Pana`ewa the Mo`o form


History and Sources of Deep Cultural Practices

Land is a physical and tangible entity and it is the most basic substance needed for human existence.  Our ancestors realized a long time ago that they were land creatures and their existence depended on the fact that land must be available.  They also realized that they did not have the power to create land.  They say land created or being born from out of the depths of the earth.  All of this creative power was being generated by something, a force they understood as parallel to their own birthing process and therefore gave it the name of Pelehonuamea or lava; an earthy matter.  This earthy matter had life, mobility, needed time to mature and eventually would become the provider.  Our ancestors knew that they could not generate it, however, it was a life force, an entity with a spirit having godlike qualities and therefore; must be a god.

Pelehonuamea or Pele is only responsible for the earthy matter, the basic, raw land.  Everything else on the land, although necessary, has secondary importance.  The space above the earth, however, has its own level of hierarchy.  Everything is interdependent and exists as a whole.  Despite this holistic imagery, there still is a sense of hierarchy and having this knowledge, separated the kahuna from the common practitioner.

   Hawai`i Island and especially Puna is fortunate because it possesses this resource for new land.   Although the process seems violent and destructive to the ordinary human, volcanic eruptions simply display the chaotic but necessary transformation of growing pains.  The making of new land is a natural phenomenon, however, to the indigenous Hawaiian, it also has a very strong spiritual presence and therefore it was and is a god…This suggests the intimate knowledge the Hawaiian had with his environment where he could rationalize volcanic activity through his understanding of causation.

    The arrival of the deity, Pele, logically may parallel a particular migration to the Hawaiian archipelago. This migration may be the Polynesian believers and practitioners who brought with them the knowledge of their primal creative gods, which is suggested in this chant:

Ho`okü Pele mä i ke ki`i          

                            The Pele people set up the images

Noho i ke ki`i a Pele mä           

                            The gods were established

A ka pua o Ko`i                       

                            And the workmen carved canoes

Kanaenae Pele mä i laila        

                            Offered prayers/ gave thanks

Ka`i a huaka`i a Pele mä         

                            Then Pele led them on a journey

A ka lae a Leleiwi                    

                            To the cape of Leleiwi


Hi`iakaikapoliopele or Hi`iaka is the focus for the moment.  Hi`iaka is the younger sibling of Pele who like her sister has godlike qualities.  Her extraordinary birth comes through incubation in an egg.  When the egg hatches this female child comes into being.  The egg represents two primary principles of Hawaiian culture; 1) healing [both earth and persons] and 2) cycles of life.  Hi`iaka became the healer of the family both for land and for persons.

The primary ingredient for healing both for land and for persons is vegetation.  Hi`iaka’s function is to heal new land just developed by Pele’s eruption, by arranging growth to spring up right away as is suggested in the chants.  The vegetation that grows is then used for the healing of human aliments.  The chant also hails Laka as the deity of hula.  The lei being made by the chanter in this piece is for Laka.  However, it is Hi`iaka who is recognized as encouraging growth and re-growth as she passes through the land, thereby providing the flora for lei making.

Eia au e Laka, e Käne, e Ha`iwahine  

                                   Here I am Laka, Käne, Ha`iwahine

Ha`iha`i pua o ka nahelehele                          

                                Plucking flowers in the wilderness 

Ho`ouluulu lei no e Laka e                          

                                Assembling a wreath indeed for you Laka

`O Hi`iaka ka ke kaula                                

                                Hi`iaka indeed is the prophet, seer   

Näna i hele a a`e a ulu                               

                                As she travels things grow

A noho i kou wahi kapu e                            

                                Sit in your sacred place

E Laka ho`oulu ï, ho`oulu ä                 

                                Laka, growth and inspiration abounds


The forest represents vegetation growth and automatically assumes the responsibility of reproducing medicinal agents for human needs.   The other primary principles are, if the forest is allowed to regenerate itself, 1) the land will be healthy and 2) medicinal agents will be available.  Regeneration of the forest exists primarily in the area of the forest we know as wao akua.  Wao akua is that level of the forest in which plants are prolific and where the wind, rain and sun promises a continuous cycle of regrowth.  The health of the forest also means that everything

else which uses the forest for their lifecycle is also healthy.  This is inclusive of the numerous micro-components within the ecosystems.  The corridor along Stainback Highway is in the wao akua elevation.


I ka ulu lehua o Pana`ewa                

                                   In the lehua grove of Pana`ewa

He ulu lehua Kaulana këia no Hilo                   

                                 This is indeed a famous lehua grove of Hilo

A, ua loa`a mai kona inoa                        

                                    And its name was obtained

Ma muli o kekahi kupua                                  

                                    From a demigod

Nona ka inoa o Pana`ewa                        

                                    From him was the name, Pana`ewa

A, `o ia ke kia`i o us wahi nei.                          

                                    And, he is the guardian of this forest

Pana`ewa nui moku lehua,                               

                                    Great Pana`ewa lehua land

`Öhi`a kupu hao`eo`e                                       

                                    Uneven `öhi`a growth

I ka ua lü lehua `ula                                        

                                    In the scattered red lehua rain

I wilia e ka manu, ua po`e                        

                                    Twisted by the bird resident population

Pö wale Hilo i ka uwahi o ku`u `äina        

                                    Hilo is darkened by the smoke of my land

Ola iä kini ke `ä mai la ke ahi                           

                                    Life to the multitude when the fire is lit.


Pana`ewa is the special forest which borders the Hilo and Puna districts.  All literature concerning Pana`ewa forest describes it as a very healthy, well-endowed forest with the largest `öhi`a lehua trees.  Throughout generations, indigenous Hawaiian poets heralded this fact.  Pana`ewa is synonymous with uliuli, moku lehua and ulu lehua o Pana`ewa.  Uliuli translates as dark, dense and very green that again translates as healthy.  Moku lehua and ulu lehua reveals that Pana`ewa’s dominate canopy is `öhi`a lehua.  The poetic description of Pana`ewa as a lehua grove or a island of lehua is visually correct.

In many myths and legends, `öhi`a lehua is closely associated with Pele and Hi`iaka.  It is the first hardwood tree to grow on fresh lava and it acts as an agent to break down the lava, making it palatable for other forest plants to grow around or under it beginning the cycle of life for flora and fauna.  It is considered at almost the same level of the creation cycle as Pele and Hi`iaka because it is an initiator.  The forest of Pana`ewa, because of its proximity, is considered the domain of Pele and Hi`iaka.

This forest was named for the infamous mo`o deity Pana`ewa who lived in his forest abode.  The imagery of this mo`o or lizard is the equivalent of a large dragon-type character.  The mo`o is considered a water creature who lives in or is part of a watery landscape.  The relevance of the mo`o and forest adds another descriptive dimension to this forest and that is, this forest is wet and soggy.

Another horizontal land division besides the wao akua is the wao ma`ü kele. The wao ma`ü kele suggests a very wet forest, usually found ma uka of wao akua.  The reference to the ma`ü kele in relationship to the Pele clan is found in this chant:

Ka `awa nei `o Hi`iaka                            

                                An offering of `awa for Hi`iaka

I kü ai, kü i Mauli-ola                              

                                Growth, growth to Mauli-ola

I Mauli-ola he `awa kauluola                  

                                Awa for good health and long life  

No nä Wahine, e kapukapukai ka `awa   

                                For the `awa drinking women,

                                the sprinkling of salt water ceremony

E Pelehonuamea!                                   

                                O Pele the female of land creation

E kala, e Haumea wahine                      

                                Pardon Haumea

O ka wahine i Kïlauea                             

                                The woman of Kïlauea

Näna i `ai a hohonu ka lua                     

                                The one who digs the pit deep

O Ma`ü, wahine a Makali`i                      

                                Related to Ma`ü, wife of Makali`i


Ma`ü is the female entity of the deep forest related to Makali`i who is the constellation Pleiades and appears at the eastern horizon at the beginning of the rainy season.  In the hierarchy of Hawaiian creators, Haumea is of the highest esteem and is the female parent of Pele and Hi`iaka.  Ma`ü is a lesser sibling to Haumea.

The interrelationship of all growth and ecosystems exists because of land and in this case our land is considered to be the extension of Pele.


The Practitioner and the Ongoing Practices


In viewing cultural impact, deep cultural sources in connection to the area concerned must be considered.  The Pele and Hi`iaka version of cultural practice is directly involved with this area of concern because all of the cultural information in chants and myth of the Waiäkea ahupua`a is the Pana`ewa forest that connects back to Pele and Hi`iaka.

Land is the first born and those things which grew on the land initially and naturally were also considered to be of the first born, such as the `öhi`a lehua.  Culturally our biggest concern is land, its location and use.  Fresh land must have the time to heal and age before it is used.  When vegetation grows of fresh land, time for healing and aging is still a concern.  Many times the comparison is made between new land and a newborn baby. 

All vegetation is a manifestation of the deities.  If the plant has a name, it had a purpose.  Recognition of a plant as kinolau or body form for a particular deity is the ongoing effort of a sincere practitioner.  Gathering vegetation at different levels of the landscape for the purpose of giving offering to the deities or using in ceremony to honor the deities or presenting a gift to a love one or using it as medicine, proves the practitioner has indeed acquired and completed his course of study with the master.  The Hawaiian considered each tree in the native forest and the fact that the forest itself is a vital part of indigenous Hawaiian culture and practice.  Without the native forest a large part of the cultural practices / practitioners would not exist.

Plants are gathered to promote good health and the plant species collected must also display good health.  The concept of our ancestors toward the plant is that of; “I have take from you and must reciprocate in any way I know possible to give back to you.”  Lokähi, or living in unity, is the term for this practice.


Some of the native practices/practitioners that are integral to all areas of the land are:

Practices & Practitioners    Plants Used            Purposes

  1)  Hula       Kumu Hula          `öhi`a, lehua, liko,   adornments,

                                                    maile, pa`iniu,         kuahu,                                                      `olapa, palapalai      implements


2)  Canoe     Kalai wa`a          koa, `öhi`a, kolea       canoes 


3)  Healing   Lä`au Lapa`au   liko, `ala`alawainui,     medicinal

                                                `äkala, kanawao         

                                                 pala`ä, mämaki


4)  Bird catching Kiamanu    päpala, `äkala,       capturing birds

                                                pilo, mämaki                               


5)  Houses      Hale                all hardwoods     making house                                                                                 

6)  Carving  Kalai Ki`i             kauila, koa                making ki`i

                                              `öhi`a, lama                                   


7)  War weapons   Koa       kauila, koa, `öhi`a        all weapons


8)  Farm tools Mahi  `ai    all hardwoods                tools [o`o]


9)  Fishing   Lawai`a         all hardwoods              spears, hooks


10) Weave    Ulana            loulu, hala      fans, mats, ceremonies


Contemporary Practices


Modern day practices continue in the Pana`ewa forest of the Waiäkea ahupua`a [traditional name for the forest of the CIA region is NOT Külani] by gathering vegetation for hula and medicine.  The vegetation for hula practice in the upper Pana`ewa forest includes maile and pa`iniu, in the Pana`ewa forest maile is abundant.  Chants and songs composed with Pana`ewa in mind honor this forest for its fragrant maile and its unforgettable canopy of lehua blossoms.  Today only mile is still gathered in abundance but not so with the lehua blossoms because the trees are too large, old or fragile.  Pa`iniu grows abundantly outside to the northwest of the CIA project corridor.


In the memory of generation, Pana`ewa is remembered for the natural growth of the land.  Modern songs reminisce of Pana`ewa and its lush growth of maile and lehua.  Such a song is written by Alice Namakelua and other recounts the splendor of Hawai`i.


Onaona Puna ke ala o ka hala la e         

                                      Puna is fragrant with the hala

Ua wili pü`ia me ka maile la e                 

                                      It is twisted with maile

He aloha a o Pana`ewa                          

                                      A gift of Pana`ewa

`O `oe no ia e ku`u lei lehua                    

                                      You are the one my lei lehua

Ke ala onoanoa o Pana`ewa                   

                                      Laden with the fragrance of Pana`ewa

`O Pana`ewa `öhi`a loloa                         

                                        Long, tall `öhi`a of Pana`ewa

I uliuli i ka ua nui                                    

                                        Made dense by the great rain

Pü`ia i ke ala o ka maile                          

                                        Accompanied with the maile scent

Lei a pa`a ke aloha                                 

                                        Love surrounds and holds fast


Another practice that survived the acculturation of the 1800/1900’s and that uses the forest resources is canoe making.  However, because of the depletion of the natural forest, the koa wood needed for canoes is non-existent in the CIA corridor.  The gathering of medicinal plants is also a use but these types of plants are not exclusive to Pana`ewa.

The native forest is proving its resilience by displaying a healthy crop of new growth under the foreign canopy.  This vitality is difficult to deny when the naio trees are at least thirty feet in height.  The new häpu`u growth has provided a healthy medium for the regeneration of the native forest.  The continual rainfall also adds to the stability of the native forest.

The Pana`ewa forest houses many pig.  They roam all through the forest from the ma uka [upland] tree line to the kahakai [water’s edge] at Leleiwi and Papa`i.  Originally, pig hunting was not a cultural practice however since the influx of immigrants for plantation laborers, pig hunting has become a necessity for many people. There are clear definitions of well-used trails by humans and animals from Tree Planting Road towards the south, indicating extensive hunting.


Unapproved Practices in the Forest

Culturally, the following practices are to be avoided:

1.      Today, many people use the forest for economic gain but this is not a cultural practice.  Cultural practice has to do with giving back to the land.  Hawaiian practitioners do not sanction the using of flora for economic gain without consideration of replanting or giving back to the forest.

2.   Indigenous Hawaiian practitioners also disapprove of untrained people gathering vegetation and then compounding their insensitivity by wasting the collected plant material.

3.   Some examples of the same trend of thought is applied to marketing efforts in the cutting of koa trees for canoe, furniture, adornments, bowls and other things for the sole purpose of selling the articles without considering the regeneration of the trees.

4.   Gathering maile without knowing how to gather it or how to start the seedling is not good practice.

5.   Harvesting `öhi`a to sell for lumber and furniture is poor practice

6.  Gathering mämaki by breaking the branches and or selling the leaves without replanting or restocking the area is poor practice.

7.    Gathering liko lehua by breaking branches and taking an over abundant amount without knowing how many liko are needed to make a set of adornments to dance is undisciplined and ignorant practice.

8.  The cutting or taking of a rare endemic plant without considering its cultural need and value is criminal.



The terms indigenous Hawaiian and native Hawaiian are recent developments in the history of Hawai`i nei or the Hawaiian archipelago.  The passage of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920 by the United States Congress defined the Native Hawaiian as a person with at least one-half of the blood of those people inhabiting Hawai`i nei prior to 1778.  The term kanaka Maoli or indigenous Hawaiian [IH] person is a development of at least fifteen years of history by kanaka Maoli political activists.  The adoption of this term today by many, if not the majority, of indigenous Hawaiians of Hawai`i nei has come about through a revived pride in the indigenous Hawaiian culture and ethnicity.

The amalgamation of all of the islands of Hawai`i nei populated by kanaka or human being by the great chief Kamehameha was accomplished in 1810.  Kamehameha I through warfare and negotiations gained suzerainty over these islands that became the Kingdom Of The Ruler Of Hawai`i [Island].  Later, that title was change to the Kingdom of Hawai`i by his successors and their subjects became generally known, politically, as Hawaiians.  However, in the historical period, because the indigenous Hawaiians were also racially and ethnic separateness, designation and thought.  Indigenous Hawaiian culture remained intact throughout the 1800’s.

The annexation of Hawai`i nei by the United States in 1898 accelerated the degree of influence and change upon the indigenous Hawaiian culture by the new dominant American culture.  After suffering a diminishing role and sublimating itself to Americanization for two-thirds of the 1900’s, the indigenous Hawaiian culture underwent a renaissance in the 1970’s that continues until today.

An integral part of the indigenous Hawaiian chiefdoms was the religion; thus one could not function without the religious component.  The religious component included the kapu system administered by the indigenous Hawaiian state sanctioned priesthood and the `aumakua system that serviced all persons within society except for the outcasts.  The kapu system was the backbone of the ruling caste and served as the society’s legal underpinnings.  The system regulated behavior and dealt out punishment for infractions.  The kapu system was so pervasive a web that all facets of society including the outcasts were affected.  But as all powerful as the kapu system was, another parallel system regarding family and natural phenomena worship also engaged society.  This system was the worship in the `aumakua system.

The `aumäkua worship serviced clans and the extended family of the ali`i or ruling caste and the maka`ainana or commoner caste.  Males and females were participants in the `aumakua worship milieu.  Different labor, service or production components of society used the `aumakua system to recognize the use of natural phenomena, flora and fauna to express religious beliefs.  Often the `aumakua system utilized deified ancestors as indigenous Hawaiian gods and guardians who were seen as empathetic yet powerful clan and family spiritual agents.  These `aumakua or family gods provided security and support of the family system’s cultural beliefs and practices.  The `aumakua system also recognized the idea of kinolau or body forms as being incorporated within the society’s beliefs and practices.

A farmer might see in his digging implement a manifestation of the god; Küka`ö`ö or an `aumakua manifestation in the vine of the `uala or sweet potato.  A hula practitioner saw a manifestation of the hula deity Laka in the forest greenery used in that practice or a fisher may leave offerings to deity, Ku`ula, who is manifested by the upright stone obelisk.  The healing practitioner viewed cultivated and forest plants used in their practice as life giving manifestations of the deity; Mauli-`ola.

Shrines and their place names were viewed as geographical areas chosen by kahuna, `aumakua and deities that their families or followers could use to focus spiritual energies or mana that one could use in one’s life or one’s rituals.  Rituals are an important part of the indigenous Hawaiian spiritual culture and the process utilized natural phenomena or natural areas as useful in the ritual process such as the kukui tree grove of the `aumakua-Lanikaula of Moloka`i.  The volcanic hills were natural features that often were dedicated to the god-Pele or forests that were seen as manifestations of the deity-Küka`öhi`alaka.

The years from 1778 to 1830 saw the general collapse of the indigenous Hawaiian societal infrastructure due to introduce diseases that devastated the native population.  The kapu system was abolished b not the `aumakua beliefs that went into eclipse but never died.  In 1893, the Hawaiian Kingdom suffered a revolution by a white businessmen majority supported by American armed might.  A two generation decline in the indigenous Hawaiian socio-economic status took place during the 1900’s that was not arrested until the renaissance phenomena of the 1970’s.  This cultural and ethnic renaissance has been growing and becoming more powerful in political, economic, social and cultural ways.

The indigenous Hawaiian culture has never lost its grip on its spiritual depth and the indigenous Hawaiian people have maintained deep spiritual devotion.  The devotion in modern times are directed toward different established faiths, however there has never been a complete obliteration of reverence for `aumakua.  The cultural renaissance has made it sage for indigenous Hawaiian who are `aumakua worshippers or devotees to surface publicly and to express their beliefs and practices in an ever increasing stridency and in ever increasing numbers.

In modern times, for instance, before the resurgence of the `aumakua system, Hawai`i nei witnessed Mrs. Belasarus flying to Hilo dressed in red, to give ho`okupu or offerings to Pele.  She was known, disparagingly at times, as the “lady in red” and Mr. David “Daddy” Bray was known as a Kahuna Pule in the 1950’s and 60’s.  Mr. Sam Lono publicly proclaimed himself a lä`au lapa`au or healer in the 1960s.  Thus, these early pioneers in the modern `aumakua milieu blazed the trail for the outright proclamation by indigenous Hawaiians in the 1990s that `aumakua worship is legitimate and welcome in these times.  These indigenous Hawaiians can now worship and espouse their `aumakua beliefs in the same sense as new faiths that have entered Hawai`i nei since 1820 such as the Mo`o Lono practitioners, the Mo`o Papa practitioners and the Mo`o Kanaloa practitioners on the island of Kaho`olawe.

If we look at our case, the resurfacing of the `aumakua worship has direct connection with the forest area of…Pana`ewa and flanking the Stainback Highway project corridor.  It is a cultural fact that indigenous Hawaiians see the forest and its many tree forms as manifestations of the cultural kinolau or body forms and as manifestations of forest `aumakua.  The 1997 public protest by the organization `Ïlio`ulaokalani, a kumu hula/hula hälau group, that caused the collapse of Senate Bill #8 or “gathering rights law” in the last legislative session has brought to the fore restatements of the cultural importance of native forests.  The cultural importance of the native forests affects the hula hälau[s] and the kumu hula or leaders, the healers who gather medicinal plants and herbs, the weavers of traditional containers and the traditional carvers.

These various cultural practitioners indicate that in the best possible worlds they would rather have the relatively untouched native forest of two centuries ago to provide them the resources necessary for their practices.  However, in this day and age, the native forest has suffered many changes and intrusions from alien flora and fauna.  The cultural practitioners want to strop any development that diminishes the resources now available to continue their practices.  They recognize that in today’s indigenous Hawaiian renaissance that more and more indigenous Hawaiians will once again do those practices that need the native forest trees and plants.  It is with this thought that cultural practitioners grasp at every opportunity to conserve and to protect old growth native forest as well ass new growth native forest.